Crime & Justice

LA Sheriff needs many more mental health teams, civilian watchdog says

L.A. Sheriff Jim McDonnell has said he supports the creation of more special mental health teams. The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission is calling for an increase in the number from 17 to 60.
L.A. Sheriff Jim McDonnell has said he supports the creation of more special mental health teams. The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission is calling for an increase in the number from 17 to 60.
Erika Aguilar/ KPCC

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After nearly a year of study, a civilian oversight panel Thursday recommended Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell sharply increase the number of special teams that respond when deputies need help in the field dealing with individuals with mental health problems.

The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission said the department should increase the number of two-person Mental Evaluation Teams from 17 to 6o. The panel did not place a price tag on the recommendation but said the L.A. County Board of Supervisors should fund it to reduce the number of mentally ill people killed by deputies each year.

Mental Evaluation Teams typically include a specially-trained sheriff's deputy and a county mental health clinician.

"We want to save lives, and this program has the potential of doing just that," said J.P. Harris, a former sheriff’s lieutenant who sat on a Commission subcommittee that developed a set of four recommendations for the full nine-member oversight panel.

Here are the four recommendations the Commission unanimously adopted:

1. Increase the number of mental evaluation teams teams to 60. 

Currently the Sheriff's Department has funding to expand the number of teams from 17 to 23. "With so few teams, [the Mental Evaluation Teams unit] simply could not timely respond to all calls in which a patrol deputy was confronting a mentally ill person who didn’t respond to commands," stated the report.

2. Prioritize department-wide deescalation training with mental health focus.

"The likelihood of [Mental Evaluation Teams] ever being a true first responder is mathematically unlikely," the report stated. "Recent studies show that police officers are primed to use force options instead of deescalation techniques since force is overemphasized in training. This is why comprehensive deescalation training with a mental health focus is absolutely critical." The report called for the department to place training simulators in each of the sheriff's 21 patrol stations. The department only has two such simulators now. The LAPD has one in each of its patrol stations.

3. Collaborate more with other mental health partners and stakeholders.

The report said the county Department of Mental Health has had trouble recruiting clinicians to be a part of the Mental Evaluation Teams because the work can be in far-flung parts of the county and involve difficult clients. That means some teams have operated as deputy-only teams. "The two agencies should identify ways to incentivize clinicians to join [the Mental Evaluation Teams unit] to ensure that all ... teams are fully staffed," the report stated.

4. Treat mental health teams and department-wide deescalation training as equally important, complimentary strategies for reducing use of force and promoting constitutional policing.

"More resources are needed to avoid pitting the expansion of [Mental Evaluation Teams] against more training," the report stated. It added that the county has paid out tens of millions of dollars in judgments and settlements involving lawsuits arising from deputy’s use of excessive force and shootings involving people with mental health problems.

"Given rising settlement costs, refusing to invest in both [Mental Evaluation Teams] and deescalation training with a mental health focus would be penny wise and pound foolish," the report said.

Sheriff’s officials who attended Thursday's meeting said the department has always recognized the value of its mental health teams.  

"It just never rose to the top three or four or five that need to be funded," said Lt. John Gannon, who oversees the teams.

It's time to make those teams a priority – ahead of sexier programs waiting for funding, said the Commission’s J.P. Harris.

"Get to those body cams maybe at a little later date," he told KPCC.

McDonnell has proposed spending $63 million dollars to equip deputies with body cameras. The department would need $55 million annually to maintain the program.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who has long supported more mental health teams, said the challenge for the sheriff is recruitment, not dollars.

"Recruitment is a very, very difficult thing right now," said Barger. "We don’t have the boots on the ground."

She described the Commission’s recommendation for 60 Mental Evaluation Teams as "an ambitious number."